The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, Vietnam is the country's oldest and foremost monument to education.
The 1,000-year-old city of Hanoi predates the Temple of Literature only by a few dozen years, putting the Temple's visitors right in the middle of the Vietnamese nation's long, eventful history. Although wars have almost destroyed the Temple in the past, restoration work done in 1920, 1954, and 2000 have given the Temple much of its former glory back.
The Temple of Literature is also quite tranquil compared to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi just outside the perimeter. The high brick walls, grassy surroundings, and the leafy trees create a bubble of calm at the heart of Hanoi.
The Temple of Literature and Vietnamese History
The Temple's grounds are home to two distinct but related institutions: the shrine to Confucius named Van Mieu, and the former university for mandarins called Quoc Tu Giam, literally the "Temple of the King Who Distinguished Literature". The former was first built in 1070, and the latter was established in 1076.
The Vietnamese King Ly Thánh Tông first built Van Mieu to honor Confucius, revered as a paragon of learning in a bureaucracy that was heavily influenced by the neighboring Chinese. Six years later, Quoc Tu Giam was opened to educate the growing civil service, becoming in effect Vietnam's first university.
Originally, only the sons of mandarins were admitted. It wasn't until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century that Quoc Tu Giam opened its halls to talented commoners, allowing the cream of the working class a leg up into the bureaucracy.
In the 15th century, the practice of carving the names of new doctors into stone plaques (stelae) was introduced. From 1442 to 1778, the Emperor awarded doctorates to worthy examinees after grueling triennial examinations - the 82 stelae in the third courtyard bear the names of 1,306 successful examinees.
The Imperial Academy was moved to Hue in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long of the Nguyen Dynasty. Although the practice of examinations continued till 1919, the Temple of Literature ceased to be an important part of the tradition after the move to the new capital.
Layout of the Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is laid out in a sequence of five courtyards from south to north, spanned by three pathways running through the Temple's length, which in turn are split by several gates with rather evocative names - more on that later.
In the old days, only the King could walk down the central path - the two flanking paths were reserved for administrative mandarins (on the left) and military mandarins (on the right).
To enter the Temple of Literature, visitors must pass eight tall stelae into the Great Portico. The stelae warn visitors to dismount their horses before entering.
After crossing into the second courtyard past the Great Middle Gate, visitors reach the iconic Khue Van Cac (Constellation of Literature) Pavilion, a 200-year-old structure flanked by two mandarins' gates - the "Crystallization of Letters" and "Magnificence of Letters". The Khue Van Pavilion opens up to the third courtyard known as the Garden of the Stelae.
Garden of the Stelae
At the very middle of the Garden of the Stelae is a walled pond called the Well of Heavenly Clarity, flanked by the two halls containing the 82 stone stelae that commemorate the 1,306 passers of the triennial examinations, recording their names, birth places, and achievements.
Each stela sits on the back of a tortoise, an extremely auspicious animal in the Vietnamese bestiary. The present stelae are by no means a complete record - 34 stelae have been misplaced since the 18th century.
The fourth courtyard is called the Courtyard of the Sage Sanctuary, entered via the Gate of Great Synthesis in the middle (and the flanking mandarins' gates, known as "Golden Sound" and "Jade Vibration").
A temple at the far end of the courtyard - the ornate Great House of Ceremonies - houses a statue of Confucius, where his memory is revered to this day.
Confucius' 72 disciples were once revered in the two buildings flanking the Great House of Ceremonies, but these are now occupied by gift shops and a museum. The latter exhibits the past classes' paraphernalia - books, inkwells, pens, and other personal artifacts.
Thai Hoc Courtyard
At the very end of the temple complex stands the fifth courtyard called the Thai Hoc, the site of the former Imperial academy Quoc Tu Giam. Destroyed by French bombs in the late 1940s, the present building was constructed in 2000.
The rear building at Thai Hoc contains altars to three Vietnamese Kings who played a major role in the construction and maintenance of the Temple in the past. On either side of the hall stand pavilions housing a large drum and a bell respectively.
Dormitories and study halls were also located in this courtyard, but were destroyed early in the the 20th century.
Getting to the Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is open for visitors from Tuesday to Sunday. From April 15 to October 15, the Temple's operating hours last from 7:30am to 5:30pm. The rest of the year, the Temple is open from 8am to 5pm. Visitors are charged 10,000VND ($0.50) entrance fee, but children below 15 years of age are allowed in for free.
Visitors can buy a brochure for about 3,000VND ($0.16), and a tour guide can be requested at the gate.
The Temple is easily reached by taxi - tell the taxi driver to take you to "Van Mieu", and they will deposit you right at the entrance. The Temple of Literature is also within easy walking distance of Ba Dinh Square, where Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum stands.